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Amazon balancing act: farm growth vs. forests

Rules ensure biofuels do more good than harm.

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
Published December 8, 2007

A 2004 image released by Greenpeace shows an area deforested by soybean farmers in Brazil. The Responsible Soy Project calls for replanting trees on deforested croplands.

LUCAS DO RIO VERDE, Brazil -On the sweltering frontier of the Amazon rain forest there is barely a tree in sight. Green fields of newly planted soy stretch as far as the eye can see.

Brazil is poised to become the world's largest exporter of soybeans. Though it is sold mostly as cheap food for humans and animals, increasingly soy is used to make biodiesel, a cleaner-burning fuel.

Brazilian biofuels - ethanol and biodiesel - are being hailed as the best global example of how renewable fuels can reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist led a trade mission to Brazil last month, largely focused on biofuels.

In January, a Brazilian federal mandate will go into effect requiring that every gallon of diesel in Brazil be blended with 2 percent biodiesel - and the percentage will keep climbing.

"Only soy today has the production capacity to meet that demand," recognizes Carlos Klink, a Harvard-trained Brazilian scientist with the Nature Conservancy. "That means a lot of expansion."

But Brazil's rapid agricultural growth has environmentalists alarmed about the effect on the Amazon, the world's largest rain forest, a region so dense with oxygen-producing vegetation it is sometimes called "the lungs of the planet."

Could Brazil's biofuels revolution actually be doing more harm than good?

- - -

"Agricultural giants such as ADM (Archer Daniels Midland), Bunge and Cargill have established themselves in the Amazon because they know they can make easy money out of the destruction of the rain forest," according to "Eating up the Amazon," a 2006 report by the environmental group Greenpeace.

A two-year study by Greenpeace alleged that Cargill, ADM and Bunge were responsible for Amazon deforestation by encouraging farmers to plant soy, the price of which has hit all-time highs.

The Amazon lost some 10,000 square miles of forest cover last year alone, according to satellite images from Brazil's Space Research Institute, a 40 percent increase over the year before.

One ton of stored carbon dioxide, a gas that contributes to global warming, is released into the atmosphere every time a 40-foot tall tree is cut down.

Brazil counters that authorities are making a greater effort to regulate agricultural expansion in and around the Amazon. Indeed, as global concern over climate change rises, Brazil is under pressure from its clients, especially in the environmentally conscious European Union, to improve its agricultural practices, or risk losing business.

Market demand is growing for what environmentalists are calling "responsible soy," certified as having been grown on legal farmland, not newly felled forest.

In 2005 Greenpeace targeted Brazilian soy producers with an international campaign, as well as McDonald's, which buys chicken fed with Brazilian soy to be turned into McNuggets.

In response Cargill brought other traders together with advocacy groups and established a moratorium under which no soybeans would be bought from illegally deforested areas of the Amazon for two years, beginning July 24, 2006.

Working with the Nature Conservancy, one of the largest U.S. environmental groups, the Responsible Soy Project was launched. Two municipalities in the northern Amazon agreed to adopt the program, backed by Cargill and McDonald's, whereby soy is purchased only from farmers who promise to plant trees on deforested land.

The Nature Conservancy built the program around strict adherence to Brazil's Forest Code, which environmentalists say is an excellent law, though poorly enforced. The code dictates that Amazon farmers may grow crops on only 20 percent of their land, preserving the rest as pristine.

The idea appears to be catching on as businesses in Brazil wake up to the global market demand for sustainable crops, the group says.

"I'm becoming more and more impressed with the response that we are getting from the private sector," said Klink, of the Nature Conservancy. "Farmers are realizing that to be in this global market they have to be doing much better in their compliance (with the Forest Code)."

- - -

This year the Nature Conservancy set up another project in Lucas do Rio Verde, targeting the soy-growing savanna region of Mato Grosso, which sits on the southern edge of the Amazon.

Mato Grosso means "thick jungle" in Portuguese, but there's not much of that left around Lucas do Rio Verde.

Thirty years ago the land around here was largely undisturbed scrub and low forest. The town was little more than an outpost named after a solitary man named Lucas, who was one of the few inhabitants on the banks of the Rio Verde (Green River).

But today the prosperous town is one of the fastest growing in Brazil. Its official population is 28,000, but residents say it's more like 35,000 and growing by 50 people a day.

Encouraged by a government colonization policy in the 1970s and '80s, the area was settled by fair-haired German-speaking farmers from the south of Brazil.

In only a few years it has been transformed into Brazil's most productive soy region. Local farmers recognize that too much forest was cleared in the early years. Now, farmers are reforesting land to comply with the Forest Code. In the savannah, the law requires 35 percent of every farm property be preserved with natural vegetation, as well as a 160-foot buffer around local rivers and springs.

Using satellite imagery, the project identified rivers and springs that needed protecting. About 3,500 acres of farmland was declared in violation and was marked for reforesting.

- - -

Farmers seem enthusiastic, recognizing that better farming practices are not only a wise marketing strategy, but also keep their land more productive.

"It's good for everyone," said Darci Eichelt, 43, who farms 6,600 acres of soy and corn. Like most farmers he is reverting some former cropland to natural habitat.

Supporters of the project say it is revolutionizing farming. "People understand that the laws need to be respected," said Luciane Copetti, the local Secretary for Agriculture and the Environment. "Where there were errors made, they want to repair the damage."

Other nearby municipalities are expressing interest in copying the model. They see it as a way to combat the negative image of soy and reassure local farmers.

"Everyone here is frightened that the rest of the world doesn't want to buy anything from us," said Paulo Fejeira, a state development officer working with other municipalities. "This will help show we are not bandits. We are not destroying the Amazon."

David Adams can be contacted at


On the Web: To learn more about biofuels go the The Fueling Station at


- Brazil is fast emerging as an agricultural superpower with vast amounts of cheap, arable land. Brazil is the world's largest exporter of beef, chicken, coffee, orange juice, soybeans and sugar. It is also the fourth largest producer of pork.

- An additional 420-million acres of farm crops could be added in Brazil, the equivalent to the U.S.'s entire agricultural space, without infringing on the Amazonian rainforest, Brazil's agriculture industry says.

- The scale of Amazon soy cultivation is still relatively contained, according to Greenpeace. In the 2004-05 planting season, only 5 percent of the total area in Brazil planted with soy was in the Amazon rainforest ecosystem. Over 90 percent of this Amazon soya was grown in the state of Mato Grosso.


[Last modified December 7, 2007, 23:13:08]

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